Batsheva Ensemble are the youth wing of the Israeli Batsheva Dance Company and their presence at Sadler’s Wells, towards the end of their UK tour was met by two different very vocal groups outside the building, one with Palestinian flags, one with Jewish. Security was much tighter than usual and because of the time it took to check bags and so forth, the performance began 40 minutes late. There had been warnings that protestors might attempt to disrupt the performance and so it proved. There were three instances of shouting, all fairly brief which did not substantially impede the performance.
This was the context: how does it affect the viewing of the performance? Some of the audience were passionate supporters and booed vigorously when the shouting started. Some of them were so keen to see the company that there was an unusual and repeated amount of photos of the performance being taken in the stalls despite vigorous efforts by the ushers to get phones turned off. Large groups of dance students looked faintly bemused.
These events made what was in fact a fairly short performance fill the whole evening. There was only just over an hour’s actual dancing, plus a twenty-minute interval. Without the delayed start and the interventions, the evening might have felt insubstantial. The cast were met with rapturous applause at the conclusion, though one wonders if that was in part relief at just getting to the end unimpeded. But also it was a reaction to the immediate surface appeal of the energy and exuberance of the performance and the company’s slick and successful invitation to members of the audience to join in on stage.
Deca Dance is choreographed by Ohad Naharin, the Artistic Director of Batsheva, who has assembled sections of eight of his earlier works into a kind of “greatest hits” compendium, a series of five or six different snippets in each half of the programme. The music is recorded, including anything from fragments of Vivaldi to a version of Somewhere Over The Rainbow. If one section of it doesn’t appeal there will be another different item along in another five minutes or so. Naharin claims in the programme that via this compilation process “the result becomes as coherent as the original if not more”. This didn’t really seem to be the case. It comes across as a constant procession of snacks, which never quite amount in total to a satisfying meal.
The set is a simple black box and lighting effects are minimal. Costumes could pass as ordinary street clothes. What the performance depends on is the energy, commitment and charisma of the young dancers, which they have in abundance, and the strength of the choreography, which is rather more variable.
Naharin is at his best when working with groups, particularly mixed groups or groups of men. There isn’t much that is gender specific in the work; women dance much the same steps as men and there is little male / female partnering. What there is looks oddly perfunctory. He has more tenderness (and aggressiveness too) for men partnering men, particularly in a section where five white-robed men appear to be immersed in some strange ritual.
Fast sections for groups work much better than slow ones, particularly in unison. In slower sections the repetitive nature of the vocabulary becomes more evident. He is best with the cheesiest music: any classical music seems to make the dancers look self-conscious and mannered. The company looks happiest when he has all the cast, male and female, in a suit. What the company has certainly mastered is the art of exuberant audience participation, where the dancers venture into the stalls plucking out volunteers from the audience to join them on stage and dance. (If you want to get selected, try wearing something red). This could easily go horribly and embarrassingly wrong, but somehow it works and the most unlikely audience members throw themselves into it and look totally liberated by the process. I commend the woman with the red hair. Perhaps we also applaud in relief at not being selected for the stage.
The dancers are unstinting in their efforts and bursting with vigour. One man improvised alone on stage for more than forty minutes before the performance could start, a performance that in its own way was more affecting than what followed.